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Full text of "Timothy Dexter, known as "Lord Timothy Dexter," of Newburyport, Mass. An inquiry into his life and true character"

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Reprinted  from  the  N.  E.  Historical  and  Genealogical  Register  for  October,  1886. 


PRESS    OF    DAVID    CLAPP    &    SON. 
1  8  8  G. 









Reprinted  from  the  N.  E.  Historical  and  Genealogical  Register  for  October,  188C. 


PRESS    OF    DAVID    CLAPP    &    SON. 
188  6. 


In  Exch» 
Wie.  Hist,  S#a» 


TPIE  writer  lost  years  ago  much  of  his  faith  in  history  and  tra- 
dition. Events  are  misstated  ;  good  and  wise  men  are  repre- 
sented as  wicked  and  foolish,  and  virtue  and  greatness  bestowed  on 
the  undeserving.  After  centuries,  often,  men  and  actions  are  shown 
to  have  been  entirely  misjudged,  and,  in  some  cases,  as  in  that  of 
William  Tell,  history  becomes  pure  fiction.* 

Timothy  Dexter,  or  Lord  Timothy  Dexter,  as  he  was  generally 
called,  had  a  peculiar  and  enduring  celebrity.  Many  distinguished 
men  have  lived  in  Newburyport,  yet  the  home  of  no  one  else  is  so 
frequently  asked  for  by  strangers  in  that  city,  and  in  all  parts  of  the 
country  when  the  writer  has  spoken  of  residing  there,  the  first  ex- 
clamation has  been,  "Ah!  that  was  the  home  of  Lord  Timothy 
Dexter  !  "  He  has  been  regarded  as  the  most  marked  example  of  a 
man  of  feeble  intellect  gaining  wealth  purely  by  luck.  However 
unwise  seemed  the  speculation  into  which  he  was  drawn  by  his  own 
folly,  or  by  suggestions  from  others  made  in  joke,  it  always  resulted 
in  large  gains,  and  the  stories  are  still  fresh  and  often  repeated,  four 
score  years  since  his  decease,  of  his  sending  warming-pans  and  bibles 
to  the  West  Indies,  &c.  &c.  These  stories  have  been  received,  too, 
without  a  question  of  their  truth,  even  in  the  place  where  he  lived, 
and  have  been  endorsed  by  every  history  of  Newburyport.  It  may 
be  well,  then,  at  a  time  when  the  credibility  of  so  much  in  the  past, 
important  and  unimportant,  is  subjected  to  criticism,  to  examine  the 
correctness  of  the  popular  estimate  of  this  man,  whose  name  is  so 
familiar  when  so  many  distinguished  men  of  his  time  have  been  for- 
gotten. So  prominent  was  he  that  Samuel  L.  Knapp,  a  well-known 
literary  man,  author  of  the  first  life  of  Daniel  Webster,  who  came 
to  Newburyport  to  reside  two  years  after  Dexter's  death,  and  had 
often  seen  him,  thought  fit  to  write  his  life,  now  a  rare  book,  though 
several  times  republished. 

*  An  amusing  illustration  of  one  of  these  persistent  and  popularly  cherished  fictions  has 
recently  come  to  the  knowledge  of  the  writer.  According  to  all  histories  of  the  United 
States, 'Ethan  Allen  demanded  from  the  British  commander  the  surrender  of  Ticonderoga 

"  In  the  name  of  the  Great  Jehovah  ami  the  Continental  Congress."  Prof-  James  I).  But- 
ler, of  Madison,  Wisconsin,  has  informed  me  that  his  grandfather  Israel  Harris  was  present, 
and  had  often  told  him  that  Ethan  Allen's  real  language  was,  "  Come  out  of  here,  you 
d— d  old  rat." 

Timothy  Dexter  was  born  in  Maiden,  Mass.,  January  22,  1747. 
lie  learned  the  trade  of  a  leather  dresser,  an  occupation  then  popu- 
lar and  profitable,  and  at  the  age  of  twenty-one  commenced  busi- 
ness for  himself  in  Charlestown,  where  leather-dressing  was  much 
carried  on,  and  by  his  industry  and  economy  was  from  the  first  suc- 
cessful. He  early  married  the  widow  of  a  glazier,  nine  years  his 
senior,  whose  husband  had  left  her  considerable  property.  She  was 
Elizabeth  Lord,  daughter  of  John  Lord,  of  Exeter,  N.  H.,  and  her 
first  husband  was  Benjamin  Frothingham,  of  Newbury,  who  was 
born  April  30,  1717,  and  died  June  1,  1769.  She  was  an  indus- 
trious and  frugal  woman,  and  by  keeping  a  huckster's  shop  added 
to  her  husband's  income,  so  that  Dexter  soon  had  several  thou- 
sand dollars  in  specie  at  his  command,  which  he  was  anxious  to  in- 
vest profitably.  It  was  when  continental  money  was  so  depreciated, 
and  he  had  learned  that  Gov.  Hancock  and  Thomas  Russell,  a  noted 
merchant,  had  been  buying  up  this  paper  at  a  small  part  of  its  face 
value,  and  in  imitation  of  them  he  began  to  do  the  same.  He  prob- 
ably made  better  bargains,  too,  because  he  bought  in  small  quanti- 
ties, of  poor  holders,  obliged  to  sell  for  what  they  could  get.  He 
was  fortunate  in  his  purchase,  as  were  all  others  of  that  day,  and 
during  our  late  war,  who  had  faith  in  the  government.  The  funding 
scheme  of  Hamilton  gave  this  depreciated  paper  its  par  value,  and 
he  soon  found  himself  a  rich  man  for  that  period,  and  became  an 
operator  in  the  stocks  of  the  day,   which  were  constantly  advancing. 

With  wealth  came  different  and  large  ideas.  As  lie  had  become 
rich  like  Hancock  and  Russell,  his  vanity  led  him  to  think  himself 
their  equal  and  entitled  to  the  same  consideration.  Finding  that  he 
was  not  received  into  the  best  society  as  they  were,  he  sought  ano- 
ther home  where  he  would  be  better  appreciated,  and  finally  fixed 
upon  Newburyport.  His  wife's  associations  with  the  place  probably 
also  influenced  his  decision.  This  was  at  that  time  a  town  of  much 
wealth  and  commercial  importance,  the  third  in  the  state  in  popula- 
tion, occupying  a  very  different  position  relatively  from  its  present 
rank.  John  Quincy  Adams,  a  law  student  then  with  the  celebrated 
Theophilus  Parsons,  used  to  say  that  he  found  better  society  there 
than  at  Washington.  Harrison  Gray  Otis,  who  was  often  there 
when  a  young  man,  bore  similar  testimony  ;  and  Talleyrand  and 
other  distinguished  strangers  who  visited  it,  praised  warmly  its  gen- 
erous hospitality,  its  air  of  wealth  and  refinement,  and  the  beauty 
of  its  long  High  Street. 

Real  estate  was  low,  as  several  large  failures  had  occurred,  and 
Dexter  bought  and  occupied  one  of  the  best  houses  in  the  town, 
that  now  used  for  the  public  library,  but  he  soon  removed  to  ano- 
ther house  on  High  Street,  with  ten  acres  of  land,  which  he  fitted 
up  in  a  manner  worthy  of  his  estimate  of  himself.  He  laid  out 
the  grounds  after  what  he  was  told  was  the  European  style,  and  had 

fruits,  flowers  and  shrubbery  of  many  varieties  planted  in  them. 
He  put  minarets  on  the  roof  of  the  house,  surmounted  with  gilt  balls, 
and  in  front  placed  rows  of  columns  fifteen  feet  high — about  forty  in 
all — each  having  on  its  top  a  statue  of  some  distinguished  man. 
Before  the  door  were  two  lions  on  each  side,  with  open  mouths,  to 
guard  the  entrance.  On  an  arch,  and  occupying  the  most  promi- 
nent position,  were  the  statues  of  Washington,  Adams  and  Jeffer- 
son, and  to  the  other  statues  he  gave  the  names  of  Bonaparte,  Nel- 
son, Franklin,  and  other  heroes,  often  changing  them  according  to 
his  fancy.  In  a  conspicuous  place  was  a  statue  of  himself,  with  the 
inscription,  "I  am  the  first  in  the  East,  the  first  in  the  West,  and 
the  greatest  philosopher  in  the  Western  world."  All  these  statues 
were  carved  in  wood  by  a  young  ship-carver,  Joseph  Wilson,  who 
had  just  come  to  Newburyport.  They  were  gaudily  painted,  and 
though  having  but  little  merit  as  works  of  art,  and  less  as  likenesses, 
gave  the  house  a  strange  appearance,  and  attracted  crowds,  whose 
curiosity  deeply  gratified  the  owner,  and  he  freely  opened  his 
grounds  to  them.  Knapp  says  these  images  cost  $15,000,  but  an  old 
gentleman,  who  remembered  Dexter  and  knew  the  artist,  has  told 
me  the  price  was  $100  for  each,  and  that  Dexter  made  as  sharp  a 
bargain  as  he  could  with  the  artist,  as  he  did  with  everyone.  Wish- 
ing his  house  to  be  in  all  respects  equal  to  those  of  Hancock  and 
Russell,  he  imported  from  France  expensive  furniture  and  works  of 
art,  as  they  had  done,  and  bought  many  costly  books,  as  he  knew  they 
had  fine  libraries.  Having  made  himself  a  "  Lord  "  he  bought  good 
horses  and  an  elegant  coach,  on  which  he  caused  to  be  conspicuous- 
ly painted  a  coat  of  arms  taken  from  a  book  of  heraldry,  in  imita- 
tion of  European  lords.  Hanking  himself  with  the  nobility,  he 
showed  much  commiseration  for  the  sufferings  of  the  higher  classes 
during  the  French  Revolution,  caused  the  bells  to  be  tolled  on  the 
death  of  Louis  XVI.,  and  sent  out  an  invitation  to  the  survivors  of  the 
royal  family  to  become  his  guests.  In  expectation  of  their  accept- 
ance he  laid  in  a  large  stock  of  provisions  which  rose  on  his  hands, 
an  act  of  Providence,  as  he  said,  to  reward  him  for  his  good  inten- 
tions, but  accoixling  to  the  popular  idea,  another  instance  of  his  un- 
failing good  luck. 

He  had  a  tomb  constructed  in  his  garden,  and  having  heard  that 
some  great  man  had  had  his  coffin  made  during  his  life,  he  also 
caused  a  coffin  to  be  made  of  mahogany,  with  silver  handles,  ex- 
pensively lined,  which  he  kept  in  his  house  and  used  to  exhibit  to 
his  guests.  An  old  gentleman  has  told  me  within  a  lew  days  that 
he  remembers  when  a  boy  looking  in  at  the  window  to  see  it. 

With  no  regular  business,  and  restless,  Dexter  gave  himself  up  to 
his  whims,  was  much  of  the  time  in  a  state  of  intoxication,  and  was 
constantly  doing  strange  things,  of  which  many  instances  are  given. 
Acting  on   some  impulse,  he  had  a  mock  funeral.      Some  one  was 


procured  to  officiate  as  clergyman,  cards  were  sent  out  to  invite  the 
mourners,  and  Dexter  watched  the  people  to  see  how  they  were  af- 
fected. He  was  satisfied  with  all  except  that  his  wife  did  not  shed 
so  many  tears  as  he  thought  were  becoming,  for  which,  as  the  story 
is,  he  caned  her  severely  after  the  ceremony.  Persons  would  go 
to  his  house  professing  to  be  lords,  and  saying  they  were  desirous 
of  paying  their  respects  to  one  whose  fame  had  become  so  world- 
wide, whom  he  would  receive  with  consideration,  and  offer  them  the 
best  he  had  to  eat  and  drink.  Mr.  Ladd,  the  well-known  peace 
advocate,  of  Portsmouth,  used  to  describe  such  a  visit.  One  of  the 
party  told  Dexter  that  this  gentleman  was  one  of  the  first  lords  of 
England,  and  Dexter  wished  to  know  what  the  king  had  said  about 
him  lately.  A  gentleman  told  me  recently  he  had  often  heard  his 
father  speak  of  a  visit  made  to  Dexter  with  other  young  men,  who 
asked  for  the  honor  of  crowning  him.  He  consented,  and  they 
placed  him  on  a  table  full  of  liquor,  and  all  had  a  carousal.  Only 
a  few  days  ago  a  gentleman  said  to  me  that  one  of  his  ancestors,  a 
clergyman,  called  on  him,  and  after  some  conversation  wished  to 
offer  a  prayer,  for  which  permission  was  given.  At  the  close,  Dex- 
ter turned  to  his  son  and  said,  "That  was  a  d — d  good  prayer, 
was  n't  it,  Sam  ?  " 

Wishing  to  extend  his  fame,  he  bought  a  country  seat  in  Chester, 
N.  H.,  on  which  he  spent  considerable  money  in  ways  to  make  a 
show,  and  called  himself  "  Lord  of  Chester."  He  often  visited 
Hampton  Beach,  then  as  now  a  favorite  resort,  and  was  delighted 
with  the  sensation  he  made.  At  one  time  he  was  sent  to  the  county 
jail,  at  Ipswich,  for  attempting  to  shoot  a  man  in  a  drunken  frolic, 
and  rode  thither  in  his  coach,  boasting  that  no  one  else  had  ever 
been  carried  there  in  that  style.  He  was  accustomed  to  walk  through 
the  streets  wearing  a  cocked  hat  and  long  coat,  and  carrying  a  cane, 
followed  by  a  peculiar  looking  black  dog  with  no  hair  ;  and  boys 
knowing  his  vanity  would  follow  him  and  salute  him  as  "  Lord  Tim- 
othy Dexter,"  whom  he  would  reward  by  money,  a  scene  which  a 
few  now  living  can  remember. 

Newburyport  at  that  time  was  a  large  market  town,  and  country- 
men came  from  far  with  their  market  wagons  to  buy  and  sell,  and 
they  all  carried  home  wonderful  stories  about  Dexter,  his  great 
wealth,  his  house  decorated  with  images,  and  his  many  strange  acts. 
With  but  few  newspapers,  and  so  much  less  than  now  to  discuss,  it 
is  nut  to  be  wondered  at  that  his  eccentricities  should  have  been  so 
much  talked  about,  and  that  people  came  from  a  great  distance  sim- 
ply to  see  him  and  his  images. 

Persuaded  of  his  own  greatness,  and  that  he  was  equal  to  any 
undertaking,  like  other  eminent  men,  he  thought  he  must  become 
an  author,  and  so  he  wrote  a  book  called  "Pickle  for  the  Knowing 
Ones."     It  was  a  small  volume,   with   some  sense   and  much  non- 

sense  jumbled  together.  There  were  no  punctuation  marks,  and  as 
this  was  commented  upon,  in  the  second  edition  he  placed  at  the  end 
a  page  of  different  punctuation  marks  with  this  note  : 

"  Mister  printer  the  Nowing  ones  complane  of  my  hook  the  first  edition 
had  no  stops  I  put  in  A  Nuf  here  and  thay  may  peper  and  solt  it  as  they 

He  had  thousands  of  copies  printed,  and  gave  them  away,  and 
this,  perhaps,  more  than  any  other  one  thing  increased  his  notoriety. 
Even  now  there  is  a  demand  lor  this  little  work,  and  though  it  has 
been  reprinted  several  times,  a  short  time  ago  its  market  price  was 
a  dollar  for  what  had  cost  but  a  i'ew  cents.  He  expresses  his  views 
on  many  topics,  and  some  of  his  remarks  indicate  shrewdness.  He 
condemns  the  folly  of  Newburyport  in  being  set  off  from  Newbury 
with  an  area  of  only  six  hundred  acres,  and  within  a  few  years  it 
has  been  reanuexed  to  a  large  part  of  Newbury,  frcm  Dexter's  ad- 
vice, or  for  some  other  reason.  In  speaking  of  the  ministers  he 
says  :  "I  suppose  they  are  all  good  men,  but  I  want  to  Know  why 
they  do  not  agree  better.  They  are  always  at  swords'  points,  and 
will  not  enter  each  other's  houses,  nor  hardly  nod  to  each  other  in 
the  street."  This  remark  certainly  would  not  indicate  a  want  of 

Having  heard  that  the  kings  of  England  had  a  poet  laureate  to 
sing  their  praises,  Dexter  thought  he  also  should  have  one,  and  he 
found  him  in  the  person  of  Jonathan  Plummer,  a  young  man  who 
had  been  a  peddler  of  fish,  then  of  sermons,  songs,  and  sheets  on 
which  were  printed  horrible  events,  and  who  in  the  end  turned  poet 
and  sold  his  own  \  rses.  Dexter  took  him  into  his  service,  gav° 
him  a  suit  of  black  livery  ornamented  with  stars,  and  crowned  him 
with  p&rsley,  and,  thus-  equipped,  the  bard  travelled  around  selling 
verses  in  praise  of  his  patron.  A  I'rw  stanzas  from  a  long  poem  will 
illustrate  the  character  of  his  productions  : 

Lord  Dexter  is  a  man  of  fame  ; 

Most  celebrated  is  his  name  ; 

Mure  precious  far  than  gold  that's  pure, 

Lord  Dexter  shine  forever  more. 

His  noble  house,  it  shines  more  bright 
Than  Lebanon's  most  pleasing  height  ; 
Never  was  one  who  stepped  therein 
\\  ho  wanted  to  Come  out  again. 

Lord  Dexter,  thou,  whose  nam!  alone 
Shines  brighter  than  kin.  -  throne  ; 

Thy  name  shall  stand  in  books  of  fame, 
And  princes  shall  thy  name  proclaim. 
*  *  # 

Lord  Dexter  like  kine 

Hath  gold  and  silver  by  the  I 

And  bells  to  churches  he  hath  given — 

To  worship  the  great  King  of  heaven. 

In  heaven  may  he  always  reign, 
For  there's  no  sorrow,  sin,  nor  pain  ; 
Unto  the  world  I  leave  the  rest 
For  to  pronounce  Lord  Dexter  blest. 

Dexter  was  superstitious,  had  a  collection  of  dream  books,  and 
was  much  governed  by  the  advice  of  others.  He  used  often  to  con- 
sult a  fortune-teller,  Madam  Hooper,  and,  after  her  decease,  Moll 
Pitcher,  a  fortune-teller  celebrated  in  the  whole  region  around  Lynn, 
her  home,  both  of  whom  knew  how  to  make  money  out  of  him.  The 
one  who  had  the  most  influence  over  him,  however,  was  Lucy  Lan- 
caster, a  colored  woman,  whose  father  was  said  to  have  been  the  son 
of  an  African  prince.  She  was  shrewd,  well  informed,  well  dis- 
posed, and  used  her  power  over  him  to  restrain  his  excesses.  She 
gave  him  more  credit  for  intellect  than  did  most  others,  saying  that 
he  was  honest,  and  that  his  follies  sprang  in  a  great  degree  from 
his  uneasy  nature  and  want  of  regular  employment. 

But  the  great  notoriety  of  Dexter,  as  has  been  stated,  is  as  a  man 
who  with  poor  judgment  gained  his  wealth  by  luck.  Did  he  so 
gain  it? 

There  is  no  doubt  that  his  first  wealth  was  gained  by  the  exercise 
of  his  trade,  in  competition  with  skilled  workmen,  and  without  or- 
dinary business  capacity  it  is  hard  to  understand  how  he  could  have 
succeeded.  He  added  to  his  wealth  by  marriage,  and  as  this  union 
is  the  result  of  luck,  or  calculation,  or  love,  which  decided  it  in  his 
case  is  unknown.  He  certainly  made  a  large  sum  by  his  specula- 
tion in  continental  money,  as  did  all  who  bought  it.  In  the  case  of 
Hancock  and  Russell,  this  would  be  called  shrewd  foresight ;  in 
Dexter  it  was  regarded  as  his  luck.  After  he  gave  up  his  trade  he 
seems  to  have  speculated  in  many  ways,  generally  or  always,  as  is 
supposed,  taking  hints  from  others,  as  all  speculators  do  ;  but  it  is 
hardly  credible,  from  his  early  history  and  constant  success,  that  he 
did  not  reason  about  his  ventures.  Knapp  says  :  "  Many  who  at- 
tempted to  take  advantage  of  him  got  sadly  deceived.  He  had  no 
small  share  of  cunning,  when  all  else  seemed  to  have  departed  from 
him.  He  by  direct  or  indirect  means  obtained  correct  opinions  upon 
the  value  of  goods  and  lands,  and  seldom  made  an  injudicious  spec- 
ulation." He  was  in  the  habit  of  finding  out  what  articles  were 
scarce,  thus  making  what  would  now  be  called  in  Wall  Street  par- 
lance a  "  corner."  The  shrewdest  Wall  Street  operators  fail — Dex- 
ter seems  never  to  have  made  a  mistake.  He  would  transact  no 
business  when  intoxicated,  and  made  his  appointments  for  the  fore- 
noon, saying  he  was  always  drunk  in  the  afternoon.  In  buying  he 
gave  the  most  foolish  reasons  to  blind  the  seller,  who  thought  he 
was  deceived  when  deceiving,  lie  bought  up  such  articles  as  opi- 
um, of  which  it  was  easy  at  that  period  of  limited  supply  to  secure 
most  in  the  market.      Knapp  says  :   "  It   often  happened  that  shrewd 


merchants  were  suspicious  of  selling-  him  an  article,  apprehensive 
that  it  was  almost  a  sure  sign  that  it  was  going  to  rise,  although 
they  could  see  no  reason  for  it." 

Dexter's  ostentation  in  so  many  foolish  ways  naturally  caused  a 
high  estimate  of  his  wealth,  and  much  curiosity  how  a  man  of  his 
capacity  could  have  gained  it.  He  seems  to  have  been  often  ques- 
tioned about  it,  and  in  the  "Pickle  for  the  Knowing  Ones."  gives 
his  answer,  which  is  quoted  in  full  as  a  good  illustration  of  the  style 
of  the  book. 

"  How  Did  Dexter  Make  his  Money  ye  says  hying  whale  bone  for  sta- 
ing  for  ships  in  grosing  three  hundred  &  40  tons  bort  all  in  boston  salutn 
and  all  in  None  york  under  Cover  oppenly  told  them  for  my  ships  they  all 
lafferl  so  I  had  at  my  own  pris  I  had  four  Counning  men  for  Rounners 
thay  found  the  borne  as  I  told  them  to  act  the  fool  I  was  full  of  Cash  1 
had  nine  tun  of  silver  on  hand  at  that  time  all  that  time  the  Creaters  more 
or  less  laffing  it  spread  very  fast  here  is  the  Rub  in  fifty  days  they  smelt  a 
Ral  found  where  it  was  gone  to  Nouebry  Port  spekkelaters  swarmed  like 
hell  houns  to  be  short  with  it  I  made  seveutey  five  per  sent  one  tun  and 
halfe  of  silver  on  hand  and  over  one  more  spect  Drole  a  Nuf  I  Dreamed 
of  warming  pans  three  nites  that  thay  would  done  in  the  west  inges  I  got 
no  snore  than  fortey  two  thousand  put  them  in  nine  vessels  for  difrent 
ports  that  tuck  good  hold  I  cleared  sevinty  nine  per  sent  the  pans  thay 
made  yous  of  them  for  Coucking  very  good  masser  for  Couckey  blessed 
good  in  Deade  missey  got  nice  handel  Now  burn  my  fase  the  last  thing  I 
Ever  sec  in  borne  days  I  found  I  was  very  luckky  in  spekkelation  I  dream- 
ed that  the  good  book  was  Run  Down  in  this  Countrey  nine  years  gone  so 
low  as  halfe  prise  and  Dull  at  that  the  bibel  I  means  I  had  the  Ready  Cash 
by  hoi  I  sale  I  bort  twelve  per  sent  under  halfe  pris  they  Cost  fortey  one 
-  Each  bibbel  twentey  one  thousand  I  put  them  into  twenty  one  vessels 
for  the  west  inges  and  sent  a  text  that  all  of  them  must  have  one  bibel 
in  every  family  or  if  not  thay  would  goue  to  hell  and  if  thay  had  Dun 
wiked  i\ie  to  the  bibel  and  on  thare  Neas  and  kiss  the  bibel  three  times  and 
look  up  to  heaven  aunest  for  forgivness  my  Capttains  all  had  Compleat 
order.-  here  Conies  the  good  luck  I  made  one  hundred  per  sent  &  littel 
then  I  found  I  had  made  money  euuf  I  hant  spekalated  sence  old  time 
by  government  securities  I  made  or  cleared  forty  seven  thousands  Dolors 
is  dit.'  old  afare  Now  I  toald  the  all  the  sekrett  Now  be  still  let  me 
A  lone  Dont  wonder  Noe  more  hone  I  made  my  money  boas." 

It  would  be  difficult  to  condense  into  the  same  space  more  improb- 
able statements  than  are  found  in  this  explanation  of  how  Dexter 
made,  his  money,  as  a  little  examination  will  show. 

The  first  speculation  named  is  that  of  whalebone.  The  year  is 
not  stated,  so  that  it  is  not  possible  to  give  the  amount  in  the  country 
and  the  price  at  that  date,  which  have  greatly  varied  at  different 
periods.  The  amount  in  the  country  in  1830  was  120,000  lbs.  ; 
the  maximum  quantity  was  5,652,300  lbs.  in  1853.  The  price  is 
now  $2  a  pound  ;  within  three  years  it  has  been  $3  a  pound  ;  and  I 
have  heard  of  sales  as  low  as  eight  cents — the  price  of  course  vary- 


ing  with  the  demand  and  supply.  Three  hundred  and  forty-two  tons 
would  be  in  the  old  reckoning  761,600  lbs.,  costing  at  the  highest 
price  given  over  two  millions  of  dollars,  and  at  the  lowest  over 
$60,000  dollars.  It  is  not  probable  that  this  quantity  was  in  the 
country  nearly  a  century  ago,  nor  that  it  could  have  found  a  market, 
as  the  demand  for  it  has  always  been  limited.  Dexter  never  could 
have  bought  this  quantity  except  at  the  lowest  price,  and  even  that 
is  doubtful,  as  will  be  shown  later.  The  tradition  is  that  as  soon 
as  he  had  purchased  it  the  fashion  for  broad  skirts  was  introduced, 
and  it  was  all  in  demand.  How  far  a  ton  of  whalebone  would  go 
in  satisfying  the  expansive  desires  of  the  ladies  of  that  time,  the 
writer  has  no  data  for  a  calculation.  Most  of  them,  however,  were 
practical,  hard-working  and  economical,  from  necessity;  merely 
fashionable  ladies  were  rare,  and  visits  to  Newport  and  Saratoga 
unknown.  As  to  the  foolish  reason  for  the  purchase,  it  was  charac- 
teristic in  him  to  give  it  if  he  wished  to  buy. 

He  says  he  had  nine  tons  of  silver  on  hand,  which  would  be  worth 
in  round  numbers  $300,000,  a  sum  which  he  never  could  have  com- 
manded, as  will  be  shown  farther  on.  It  was  just  after  the  com- 
mencement of  our  government,  when  hard  money  was  scarce,  and 
most  of  it  foreign,  as  we  had  coined  but  little  before  the  day  of  safe- 
ty vaults,  and  banks  were  few.  If  one  had  had  such  a  large  amount 
of  coin,  where  could  he  safely  have  deposited  it?  Who  ever  dared 
to  keep  such  an  amount  in  a  private  house? 

His  next  most  noted  speculation  was  in  sending  42,000  warming- 
pans  to  the  West  Indies.  No  hard-ware  was  made  in  this  country 
until  a  little  more  than  half  a  century  ago,  and  all  the  warming- 
pans  in  use  came  from  Great  Britain.  The  amount  named  would 
have  cost  about  Slot), 000,  to  be  paid  for  in  hard  money,  as  bills  of 
exchange  were  then  but  little  used.  Such  an  importation  and  ex- 
portation would  have  required  months  of  time,  and  would  have 
made  a  sensation  indeed,  for,  though  common,  a  large  part  of  the 
families  had  none,  and  they  are  now  rare  as  old  curiosities.  Is  it 
possible,  rating  his  intelligence  very  low,  that,  if  he  had  attempted 
such  a  speculation,  he  would  not  have  been  persuaded  of  its  folly 
long  before  he  could  have  executed  it?  Except  for  the  purpose  for 
which  they  were  made,  they  are  of  no  value.  Dexter  says  they  were 
sold  in  the  West  Indies  as  cooking  utensils,  but  a  glance  shows  how 
inconvenient  they  would  be  for  such  use.  The  tradition  is  that  they 
v-ere  sold  to  dip  and  strain  molasses,  but  they  are  poorly  adapted 
to  this,  and  nearly  a  century  ago,  when  sugar  plantations  were  few 
in  the  West  Indies,  but  a  small  part  of  42,000  would  have  satisfied 
any  such  demand.  Did  any  visitor  to  the  West  Indies  ever  see  or 
hear  of  one  of  these  42,000  warming-pans? 

Of  all  his  speculations  the  bible  venture  seems  most  improbable. 
If  there  was  an  over  supply,    they   would    be  English  bibles,  sent  to 


a  Roman  Catholic  country  where  bibles  are  but  little  circulated,  to 
a  Spanish  talking  people  that  could  not  read  them,  and.  of  course, 
could  not  be  made  to  understand  their  terrible  destiny  it'  they  did 
not  buy  one. 

There  is  another  speculation  often  spoken  of,  and  mentioned  by 
Mrs.  Smith  in  her  History  of  Newburyport,  but  which  Dexter  does 
not  give  in  his  "  Pickle  for  the  Knowing  Ones  "' — a  consignment  of 
mittens  to  the  West  Indies,  which  were  bought  at  a  large  advance 
by  a  vessel  hound  for  the  Baltic.  It  is  enough  to  say  of  this  that 
wool  and  labor  have  always  been  cheaper  in  the  North  of  Europe 
than  here,  and  there  has  never  been  a  time  since  1492  when  mittens 
could  have  been  shipped  there  from  America  at  a  profit.  The  sale 
of  this  article  is  limited  everywhere,  as  the  supply  from  lady  friends 
usually  equals  every  demand.  If  one  consignment  of  mittens,  or  of 
any  other  article  in  which  Dexter  was  so  fortunate,  could  yield  such 
a  return,  why  did  not  some  other  Yankee,  taking  the  hint,  repeat 
the  venture? 

All  these  professed  importations  and  exportations  would  naturally 
have  been  made  at  Newburyport,  where  Dexter  lived,  and  which 
had  a  large  trade  with  the  West  Indies  ;  yet  the  collector  of  cus- 
toms of  that  place  lias  told  me  that  the  hooks  of  the  custom  house 
contain  no  evidence  of  any  such  transactions.  Every  old  person  in 
Newburyport  with  whom  I  have  conversed,  has  accepted  all  these 
stories,  yet  could  give;  no  foundation  for  them  except  the  common 
belief.  If  Dexter  dealt  in  warming-pans  and  the  other  articles 
named  at  all.  it  was  probably  in  small  quantities,  as  he  would  have 
dealt  in  other  articles  in  common  demand,  to  make  a  little  "corner," 
and,  to  conceal  his  object,  he  would  give  the  most  foolish  reason. 
The  only  direct  evidence  I  can  find  is  Dexter's  own  word,  and  he 
professes  to  tell  a  "secret,"  when  such  large  and  unusual  specula- 
tions could  not  have  taken  place  without  general  knowledge  and 
discussion.  Ivnapp  says  :  "Tricks  without  malice  made  up  the  great 
amusement  of  his  latter  days.  lie  devised  it  in  the  morning  and 
cherished  it  at  night,  and  no  doubt  it  filled  his  dreams."  The  only 
satisfactory  explanation,  then,  of  these  stories  which  Dexter  tells  to 
those  inquiring  minds  so  anxious  to  learn  the  secret  how  he  made 
his  money,  is  that  they  were  the  creation  of  his  own  brain,  a  great 
joke  worthy  of  Mark  Twain,  successfully  imposed  on  the  commu- 
nity— that  instead  of  being  the  fool  he  is  commonly  regarded,  he 
fooled  others. 

The  inventory  of  Dexter's  estate,  taken  from  the  Probate  Office, 
is  as  follows  : 

Real  Estate  12,000. 

Personal  Estate 15,500. 

Goods 7,527.39 



This  small  estate  shows  how  largely  Dexter's  wealth  was  over- 
estimated, and  how  improbable  arc  the  statements  of  transactions 
calling  for  such  large  sums  as  have  been  named.  He  was  sharp 
in  all  his  business  affairs,  and  spent  but  little  except  to  gratify 
his  vanity  and  his  passion  for  drink.  A  little  money  in  those  days 
of  small  means  and  great  economy  made  much  show,  and  it  is  doubt- 
ful if  he  ever  could  have  been  worth  as  much  as  |75,000.  There 
is  no  reason  to  believe  he  ever  made  any  serious  losses  ;  this  would 
be  contrary  to  the  tradition  that  he  was  always  a  lucky  fool.  All 
the  business  operations  of  which  we  have  any  knowledge  seem  to 
have  been  marked  by  good  sense.  He  was  interested  in  public 
affairs,  and  gave  judiciously,  but  not  largely,  to  objects  of  charity. 
He  took  one  hundred  shares  and  was  the  largest  stockholder  in 
the  new  bridge  over  the  Merrimack,  at  Deer  Island,  now  the  attrac- 
tive home  of  Richard  S.  and  Harriet  Prescott  Spofford,  and  at  its 
opening,  July  4,  1793,  delivered  an  oration  which  one  of  the  news- 
papers of  that  day,  thrusting  greatness  on  Timothy  Dexter  as  they 
have  done  on  many  a  Dexter  since,  pronounced  "for  elegance  of 
style,  propriety  of  speech,  and  force  of  argument,  truly  Ciceronian." 
And  it  may  be  stated,  that  these  shares  are  all  the  stocks  named  in 
his  will,  or  in  the  inventory  of  his  estate.  It  has  been  said  that  his 
motive  for  putting  up  the  images  was  to  make  the  new  bridge  a  pay- 
ing investment  by  drawing  travel  over  it  and  past  his  house,  and  he 
wrote  some  newspaper  articles  against  other  proposed  bridges.  He 
gave  a  bell  to  one  of  the  churches,  and  sums  to  the  other  churches 
to  be  used  in  benevolence.  A  gift  was  made  to  St.  Paul's  Church 
on  condition  that  a  tablet  should  perpetuate  it,  and  there  it  hangs 
to-day  with  gilt  letters,  a  monument  of  his  vanity  and  of  his  shrewd- 
ness in  so  ingeniously  perpetuating  his  name.  He  offered  to  pave 
Ilio-h  Street  if  it  should  be  called  by  his  name,  and  to  build  a  mar- 
ket house  for  the  use  of  the  town  with  a  similar  condition.  Both 
objects  were  much  heeded,  and  he  showed  far  better  judgment  in 
the  offer  than  did  the  town  in  its  rejection. 

If  the  view  here  taken  is  correct,  the  Dexter  of  tradition  and  com- 
mon belief  disappears,  and  in  his  place  is  a  vain,  uneducated,  weak, 
coarse,  drunken,  cunning  man,  low  in  his  tastes  and  habits,  con- 
stantly  striving  for  foolish  display  and  attention,  but,  with  all  his 
folly,  having  business  shrewdness,  to  which,  and  not  to  luck,  he 
owed  his  success. 

His  family,  mainly  his  own  fault,  was  not  a  happy  one.  His  only 
son  was  allowed  to  spend  money  as  he  pleased,  was  sent  to  Europe, 
and  had  every  opportunity  for  improvement  ;  but,  as  might  be  ex- 
pected, he  became  dissipated,  a  prodigal,  and  died  a  drunkard  one 
year  after  his  father.  His  only  daughter,  with  some  beauty,  but  a 
feeble  intellect,  was  sought  on  account  of  her  reputed  wealth,  and 
married  a   judge,  who   soon    became  tired  of  her,  and  obtained  a  di- 

voire,  with  or  without  reason,  and  sent  her  home  an  imbecile,  with 
confirmed  habits  of  intoxication.  A  child  of  this  daughter  married 
respectably,  but  died  early,  and  with  the  death  of  the  daughter,  about 
1850,  the  family  became  extinct. 

A  lady  in  Newburyport  has  a  portrait  of  Dexter,  taken  by  an 
artist  in  New  Haven,  where  his  daughter  had  married.  He  is  rep- 
resented dressed  as  a  gentleman  of  that  day,  wearing  a  wig,  a  ruf- 
fled bosom  and  ruffled  wristbands,  and  his  face  certainly  indicates 
no  lack  of  intelligence. 

lie  died  October  2<i,  1806  ;  his  death  caused  or  hastened  by  in- 
temperate habits.  His  will  was  judicious,  lie  provided  carefully 
for  his  family  and  others  having  natural  claims  on  him,  and  made 
some  sensible  bequests,  among  them  $2, (MX)  to  Newburyport,  the 
income  to  be  expended  for  the  poor,  and  $2,000  for  the  support  of 
the  gospel,  and  $300  tor  a  hell  to  his  native  town,  Maiden,  lie  re- 
quested to  lie  buried  in  the  tomb  he  had  constructed  in  his  garden, 
but  the  hoard  of  health  interfered,  and  he  rests  with  his  lollies  in 
the  cemetery  close  to  the  beautiful  mall.  On  the  plain  stone  over 
his  grave  is  the  following  inscription  : 

"In  memory  of  Timothy  Dexter  who  died  Oct.  i'ti.  1806, 
iEtatis  ! 
He  gave  liberal  Donations 
For  tin-  support  of  the  Gospel ; 
For  the  benefit  of  the  Poor, 
And  tor  other  benevolent  purpos 

Near  his  grave  are  those  of  his  wife,  who  died  July  -">,  1809,  aged 
72,  and  of  his  son,  who  died  July  20,   FS07,  aged  36. 

The  images  remained  as  at  Dexter's  decease  until  the  great  gale 
in  LSI.")  blew  down  most  of  them,  which  were  sold  by  auction  for  a 
small  sum.  The  three;  presidents  on  the  arch,  however,  occupied 
their  place  till  about  18.10,  attracting  much  attention,  and  keeping- 
alive  the  old  curiosity  about  the  former  eccentric  owner. 

The  house  was  used  as  a  hotel  and  the  home  of  the  daughter  till 
her  death,  and  with  the  grounds  was  neglected.  It  was  then  bought 
by  a  gentleman  of  good  taste,  the  late  Dr.  E.  G.  Kellcy,  who  great- 
ly improved  the  buildings  and  grounds,  and  sold  it  to  the  Hon. 
George  II.  Corliss,  who  has  made  it  one  of  the  most  attractive  hoi 
of  the  city.  The  eagle  on  the  top  remains,  the  last  of  Dexter's